The River (2017): A Spoiler Review

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Photo montage of scenes from The River. Central image is the English-language poster for the show.

🇳🇴 THE RIVER 🇳🇴
(by Gina Meardon)

THE RIVER (2017) aka ELVEN is a Norwegian crime, drama series available on All4 Walter Presents U.K. 8 x 45 min episodes. Guidance re: strong language and graphic images. Norwegian with subtitles.

Premise:

“A little girl disappears after finding a severed hand in the river behind their house not far from the Finnish-Russian border of Norway. Unexpectedly the Norwegian military refuse to help in the search.”IMDB

Cast:

Espen Reboli Bjerke as Thomas Lønnhoiden
Ingeborg Raustøl as Mia Holt
Dennis Storhøi as Dahl
Ánne Mággá Wigelius as Grace
Erik Smith-Meyer as Lensmann
Stig Henrik Hoff as Bjørn
Hanne Mathisen Haga as Elise
Rolf Degerlund as the Local Sheriff
Roger Hilleren as Sundby
John Sigurd Kristensen as Karl Lønnhoiden (Thomas’s uncle)
Thomas Hayes as August Wildhagen
Mary Sarre as Grace’s mother
Sven Harry Schöttker as the Pastor
Wiola Wilma as Silja

Crew:

Directors: Arne Berggren and Margaret Berghelm
Creators: Arne Berggren, Kristine Berg
Writers: Arne Berggren and Kristine Berg
Cinematographer: Martin Jørgensen Edelsteen (as Martin J. Edelsteen)
Music: Geirmund Simonsen

Image show the theatrical poster for the show The River

Notes:

The Djupelv River does exist. It is located in Finnmark county which is far above the Arctic Circle and the northernmost AND easternmost county in Norway. Djupelv town is approximately 1,329 kilometres (826 miles) from Oslo. Finnmark county was the border region between Norway, Finland and Russia. On 1 January 2020, it was merged with the neighbouring county of Troms to form the new Troms og Finnmark county.

Norwegian journalist Morten Jentoft has written extensively on Finmark County during the Cold War. He believes the Soviet liberation of East Finmark (1944) led to widespread sympathy with the Soviet Union, particularly amongst people of Sámi and Finnish heritage. In turn, this led to military leaders regarding the population of the county to be potentially unreliable should Russia invade. (Norwegianamerican Dec. 2015).

French language theatrical poster for The River

⚠️Contains Mild Spoilers⚠️

Review:

I have watched this series twice in the last month. I was curious to see why The River, which is buried in the Walter Presents listings, had such little attention from fans. Walter’s synopsis hints at something grim happening to a child so I’m starting this review by saying yes, in episode 1 a child does indeed go missing and yes, she does die. However, it is not a child murder and this series is not about a child killer so please don’t be put off watching an extremely good drama for that reason – no children were harmed in the making of this series!

So, what is it about?

Espen Reboli Bjerke as Thomas Lønnhoiden in The River

Cop Thomas Lønnhoiden has recently returned to the Laestadian community in the remote town of Djupelv in the far North East of Norway, an unforgiving, sparsely populated, frozen borderland where conditions are tough and people hold secrets and lies. The area is home to a military intelligence base that has enough secrets of its own. Unfortunately, those secrets are thawing, quite literally. (The Laestadian community was also visited in All the Sins, although the people of Djupelv have different demons to those in that particular Finnish drama).

When a little girl, Silj, finds a severed hand in the Djupelv River (in the opening bars of episode 1) the police and military are alerted. Thomas begins an investigation believing there may be a killer at loose, however from the start we, the viewers, are aware the Intelligence Base Commander, Sundby, the Sheriff of Police, Jansen and Thomas’s uncle Karl (who is retired military intelligence) are up to their necks in something very murky.

They are desperately trying to keep a lid on something, unfortunately, the person tasked with the job is making errors, which could have been contained, however no one expected an inquisitive child, who runs away from her mother and grandmother arguing at home once too often, to become involved.

Whilst Thomas is investigating the severed hand and simultaneously coordinating the search for the now missing Silj, the army is conducting night exercises close to the Finnish-Russian border, where Russian activity has been reported. The operations are under the command of Mia Holt, a capable and newly deployed to Djupelv officer, who quickly discovers that the new recruits, especially one August Wildhagen, seem to have separate agendas and take their orders directly from Sundby, and not her.

Espen Reboli Bjerke as Thomas Lønnhoiden and Ingeborg Raustøl as Mia Holt in The River

Thomas asks Mia for help, believing that the child may have wandered onto military land and bearing in mind it is night and temperatures are freezing, he is stunned when his request is refused. Mia points out that the little girl could not possibly be in the area since military intelligence would know.

Silj, unfortunately, had found something very sinister in the woods and it is that find that leads to her death and the subsequent discovery of her body in the very area Mia said she could not possibly be which brings to an end the opening episode and leaves the viewer as desperate for answers as a furious Thomas.

Thus begins an intriguing, gripping and complex good old-fashioned Cold War spy thriller, something we have not had on Walter Presents, or anywhere else for that matter. “The Cold War being over is a myth created in the 80s by politicians. It is still going on.” So says Dahl, Head of Military Intelligence, to Thomas, after he arrives from Oslo to take charge. He also has an ulterior motive for being in Djupelv and that does not become clear until very near the end.

Thomas is a central character in the story. Although born in Djupelv he is considered an outsider to the Laestadian community. His parents were both killed in a civilian plane crash in the border region in the 1970s (his father was in the military at the time) and he was raised by his father’s brother. His memories of his parents are hazy, however, when more human remains are found and Thomas’s DNA proves an exact match to one of the victims, the case becomes highly personal.

Of the civilians in the story Silj’s mother, Grace, plays a big role. A troubled young woman who craves a better life away from the town with her child, she has an uneasy relationship with her religious mother. She works at the local bar, owned by Bjørn, who supplements her income by pimping her out to clients as and when the opportunity arises. They are also involved in other activities, which are masked in mystery. Grace is clearly struggling with the decisions in her life and takes refuge with the Pastor of the church for a time in a storyline that could offer redemption and forgiveness…

Far away in Oslo, an old lady lies dying in hospital, she begs her granddaughter to carry on her life’s work, to absolve her husband, the pilot of the plane that crashed and killed Thomas’s parents, of any blame attributed to him for the crash. She has photographs and papers that she gives to Elise her granddaughter. Elise takes them to Djupelv and confronts Dahl with evidence of a cover-up and circumstances that throw Thomas and Mia together to discover the truth, and what they uncover is devastating.

“The truth is never simple. Do you understand?”

The Norwegian fear of Russian activity and infiltration in the border areas today is still very real. It was alluded to in the Norwegian series Occupied (Okkupert, still showing on Netflix) and, as mentioned in Notes above, The River is based on actual events.

I found it extremely watchable and was continually trying to figure out who at times were the ‘bad guys’ and whilst by episode 6 I had figured who the antagonist was, I was unprepared for the twists and shocking revelations to come.

I have to say a HUGE plus of this show, as with Rebecka Martinsson, is the location. The remote border region is stunningly beautiful, vast and utterly desolate in the snow. The temperatures for filming must have been below freezing so huge kudos to the cast and crew because a lot of filming was also done at night. The cinematography is outstanding with some amazing aerial shots, sweeping white landscapes and a truly icy flowing river.

The snowclad scenes of the opening credits are a metaphor for the background to the whole story and the photo of the soldier by the tank is a deliberate placement right at the start. The colour palette could not be any more perfect. White. White, white snow as far as the eye can see, contrasted with the darkest browns, greens and black of the forest areas. The river grey, pale blue and foaming white at times. The buildings are grey, the cemetery white with snow and even the crosses on the graves are white wood. You really do feel like you are in a forgotten part of the world in the darkest, coldest, depths of winter.

Espen Reboli Bjerke as Thomas and Ingeborg Raustøl as Mia were both eminently watchable as was Dennis Storhøi as Dahl whilst Ánne Mággá Wigelius as Grace gave an excellent performance as the conflicted (and tormented) Grace.

Would I recommend The River as one to watch? Yes. It has not got a ‘big name’ cast but it has got a very good story that offers up a complete explanation at the end and is refreshingly different from the norm of cops, drug-associated crime and murder. I think if you like Rebecka Martinsson and that Northern Scandinavian setting then you will definitely enjoy The River.

Awards:

The River has not won any awards or nominations – but please do not let that stop you from watching.

The River Official Norwegian Trailer No English Subtitles:

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